It ain’t easy to be a Presbyterian ruling elder.
You might be fortunate enough to serve on a session peopled only by polite and deferential colleagues. But what are the odds?
You may be blessed enough to serve in a church that doesn’t swamp you with committee assignments that outnumber the evenings in the month not already taken up by your family and vocational obligations. But what are the odds?
You may be privileged enough to serve a whole three-year term in a church that doesn’t run headlong into a “pastor problem” – whether in the form of lacking the funds to support a full-time teaching elder, or needing to share your pastor with another congregation, or having to mop up the mess triggered by your pastor’s irregular preaching or abrasive personality or aberrant behavior. But what are the odds?
And you may be isolated enough to be seen only by fellow Presbyterians at your favorite Sunday afternoon restaurant wearing your “elder” name tag (what my kids dubbed “church nerd tag”), so that you won’t have to explain to the majority of Baptists or Catholics or Episcopalians or Methodists how being a ruling elder isn’t the same as serving on their deacon board or parish council or vestry or pastor-parish relations committee. But what are the odds?
Consider the difference between our session and that of the advisory boards that serve other churches.
Yes, all of those boards engage in group deliberations – where the whole sometimes shows itself to be greater than the sum of the parts. That is to say, the sharing of ideas across the table occasionally leads to a group epiphany, a conclusion that no one person had thought up alone which proves to be truly inspired.
And any one of them may provide the opportunity to work closely with a pastor who is the real deal: an authentic, God-called, Spirit-led, tender-hearted, wise and visionary shepherd of the flock.
But what those other boards do not provide is an ordination into an ordered ministry that matches the authority and gravitas of the preacher/priest/bishop/pastor.
When Presbyterian ruling elder candidates respond affirmatively to virtually the same ordination questions asked of teaching elder candidates (ministers), and when they get surrounded by elders of both stripes for the laying on of hands to be commissioned into their work, they receive an ordination equivalent to that of the robed leader who had to earn a bachelor’s degree and a three-to-four year master’s degree, had to successfully sit through ordination exams of a difficulty comparable to a bar or CPA exam, and was required to fulfill a string of unanticipated and sometimes seemingly insanely demanding and invasive committee on preparation for ministry requirements.
Unfortunately, so many elders don’t quite “get” it. They don’t grasp the breadth of authority and depth of gravitas with which they have been entrusted. One reason is that their models for service have been formed by serving on one of those other kinds of boards – which strangely resemble the boards of trustees serving nonprofit organizations. In a word, those boards are advisory and delegatory. One gets recruited to them for one’s wealth, wisdom and/or work. They are expected to provide financial investments, expertise and/or time. And they hand down rulings for others to implement.
In contrast, Presbyterian ruling elders are first committed disciples, followers of Jesus Christ. Their commission grows out of their calling to be participating members of the body of Christ. Their ordination then brands them with the title of servant-leader: one who leads as a servant, not as a potentate. And they are commissioned to be a friend among their colleagues – the other ruling elders and teaching elders in the congregation, presbytery, synod and denomination where they serve – living in mutual, covenantal accountability with folks many of whom they never would have chosen as friends.
Yes, this calling and election to ordained, ordered ministry of a Presbyterian ruling elder ain’t easy. But serving as such is one of the highest privileges – indeed, one of the rarest honors – a person can be accorded in the Christian life.